Any sports figure would like to end his career as the great Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox did on Sept. 28, 1960, hitting a home run in his last at bat. But that's not the way it usually works--in baseball or horse racing.
For every miracle finish like that of Williams there are dozens of Hall of Fame careers that end on a sadder note: a once-nimble Willie Mays stumbling after fly balls for the New York Mets, or pitcher Jim Palmer being released by the Baltimore Orioles after seeing his earned-run average soar above 9.00.
Seldom in our sport do important horses end their careers with a home run, winning a contest planned to be their final race. The last horse to capture the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) and then go out a winner in a late-season fixture was Alysheba, who bowed out with a thrilling triumph in the 1988 Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I).
Of the last 25 winners of the Derby, 10 horses won their final career race: Seattle Slew in the 1978 Stuyvesant Handicap (gr. III); Affirmed in the 1979 Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I); Spectacular Bid in the 1980 Woodward Stakes (gr. I); Genuine Risk in a 1981 allowance race; Gato del Sol in the 1985 Caballero Handicap; Swale in the 1984 Belmont Stakes (gr. I); Spend a Buck in the 1985 Monmouth Handicap (gr. I); Alysheba; Grindstone, who suffered a career-ending injury winning the 1996 Derby; and Real Quiet, in the 1999 Hollywood Gold Cup.
Most of those winning finales were not planned. Injuries have cut short too many racing careers.
And so it is with Monarchos, who carried John and Debby Oxley's colors to victory in the 127th Kentucky Derby last May 5 but never won another race. The Kentucky-bred colt by Maria's Mon finished sixth in the Preakness (gr. I) and a distant third in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I)--both won by unanimous 3-year-old male champion Point Given. Monarchos went to the sidelines with an injury in July, then came back to finish third in a race at Gulfstream Park that was to be a prep for the Feb. 9 Donn Handicap (gr. I). One week after that Jan. 19 comeback, trainer John Ward and the Oxleys announced the gray colt's retirement, due to a tendon injury.
Monarchos isn't the only horse to go winless since last year's Derby. Ten of the classic's 17 starters have not won since last May, two of them never having started again. Collectively, the 17 runners have made a total of 46 post-Derby starts, an average of 2.7 per horse, and they have just 10 wins, four belonging to Point Given.
Is that an indictment of the overall quality and depth of last year's Derby field? In part, perhaps, but it also suggests that either the race itself or the condition of the track on Derby Day took something out of many starters. Let's not forget the winning time by Monarchos, 1:59.97, was the second-fastest in history. Three track records were established on the Churchill Downs main track on the Derby undercard. Intentionally or not, the track was souped up, playing much faster that afternoon than it had earlier in the week.
Nevertheless, Monarchos was a horse with much ability. A late starter, he did not break his maiden until January of his 3-year-old season, the start of a three-race winning streak that included the Florida Derby (gr. I). Monarchos finished second in the Wood Memorial Stakes (gr. II) before taking the Kentucky Derby.
Bred in Kentucky by former newspaperman Jim Squires, Monarchos should bring much-needed stamina to the gene pool as he goes to stud. His sire was a champion 2-year-old whose career also was cut short by injury. The female family of Monarchos runs thick with the classic bloodlines of the Darby Dan Farm established by the late John Galbreath. He'll be a welcome addition to the stallion ranks.
All things being equal, we would much prefer to see Monarchos go out in style--in the winner's circle.